Narcissism and Incivility: Is There a Connection?

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©2018 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. Did you ever wonder where incivility comes from? Is it always what someone else is doing? It seems to have spread far and wide over the last few years. In all professions, in all organizations and in the larger society, we seem to be becoming more rude, more insulting and less sensitive to each other. This appears to be directly connected to the rise of narcissism in our society. This article suggests why these two trends are increasing hand-in-hand—and what we each can do about it.   The Rise of Narcissism In 1994, the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition—the DSM-IV—was published by the American Psychiatric Association. It indicated that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) was present in less than one (1%) percent of the general adult population. (Personality disorders are generally not diagnosed until adulthood, since children and adolescents are still developing and changing.) This personality disorder is characterized especially by a “grandiose sense of self-importance,” a “sense of entitlement,” and a “lack of empathy.” These are just three of the nine criteria used by the DSM-IV, but it’s easy to see that this personality has increased over the last twenty-five years. In 2013, the DSM-5 was published and, using the same criteria as before, recognized that the prevalence of NPD may be as high as 6.2%, based on a study done by the National Institutes of Health. While it may be that this study was the largest ever done and therefore more accurate, it does seem that narcissistic behavior has increased. It’s important to note that personality-based behavior exists on a continuum so that there are many people with some traits of this disorder but not the full personality disorder.   Why Now? Narcissism has been increasing in our society for many years. Interestingly, two researchers have traced this to a specific time period: the early 1970s. The authors of the book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (2009), studied surveys of high school and college students over several decades, as well as articles written in major publications. It seems that this was significantly the time of a societal transition from group goals to individual goals, from emphasis on citizenship to self-esteem, and from self-discipline to self-expression. I believe a significant aspect of this societal change was the birth control pill in the 1960s and the ability to have smaller families. With families having just one or two children, it became easier for each child to become the center of attention. In 1970, California introduced “no-fault” divorce laws which then spread around the country and significantly boosted the divorce rate. Soon, parents were fighting over their one or two children, to give them attention and to get their attention during the marriage; and to have primary custody of them or equal custody of them after the divorce. Children went from being “seen but not heard” up to the 1960s, to becoming the center of the family and at times making key decisions for the family.   The Rise of Incivility At the same time, professions have seen a dramatic rise in incivility over the past twenty years. For example, in 2007, the California State Bar Association published the “California Attorney Guidelines of Civility and Professionalism.” Yet incivility increased in the legal profession after that. In 2013, I wrote an article “Misunderstanding Incivility and How to Stop It” for the statewide California Family Law News, pointing out that 80-90% of lawyers didn’t need such Guidelines because they were already civil on their own. I said that the 10-20% of lawyers who were engaging in uncivil conduct had such behavior as part of their personalities and that they would not change without enforcement measures, but there were none built into the Guidelines. Incivility has continued to increase. Today, we have many cultural and political leaders who regularly engage in uncivil conduct, so that we are seeing increased incivility from children on the playground to the daily news.   The Incivility Connection with Narcissism Simply put: uncivil behavior is narcissistic behavior. It involves one person putting another down, embarrassing the other, humiliating the other, and so forth, often in public. This is a trait of narcissism, as the theme for narcissistic personalities is “I am very superior to you,” and they repeatedly engage in arrogant behavior that says they are “winners” and others are “losers.” They often even use these terms. With this connection, hopefully, it is obvious that incivility is baked into the personalities of those with narcissistic traits or personality disorders. This means that this behavior will not easily change or go away. However, the larger culture makes a difference. If narcissistic behavior is glorified and rewarded in the media, we will get more incivility. Those with narcissistic traits will act like those with disorders. And ordinary people will start acting like they have these traits. That is what is happening right now in our culture. Leadership and leader emotions are contagious. Repetition of images of uncivil behavior leads to more uncivil behavior.   What Can We Do? Yes, we have a more individualistic culture now compared to pre-1970. But this doesn’t mean that we have to be more narcissistic (arrogant, superior, etc.). We can be respectfully individualistic and value each other as equals at the same time. This means we need to learn skills to manage our own narcissistic tendencies and teach skills to our children and the larger culture of balance: respect for all individuals and respect for our culture—our community, nation and planet. Here are some suggestions: 1.  Our Words: We can individually become more aware of how we give feedback, how we use sarcasm, how we promote ourselves by putting others down. Much of this is very subtle and we don’t even realize the way it may affect others. 2.  Our Emotions: People often justify their uncivil behavior by claiming that it is justified because of how someone else made us feel. When we are emotionally triggered, we are more likely

Splitting America

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and Don Saposnek, Ph.D [The following is an excerpt from the new book “SPLITTING AMERICA: How Today’s Politicians, Super PACs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce” by Bill Eddy and Don Saposnek (HCI Press, 2012). Something nasty is happening in America. Have you noticed the trend? There’s more bullying, more incivility, more disrespect and even more relationship violence between us at home, at work, in our communities and in the news. And, it seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. We have noticed a pattern to this behavior that is all too familiar. It generally includes: Personal Attacks (calling the other person crazy, stupid, immoral or evil) Crisis Emotions (which trigger fear and hatred of each other) All-or-Nothing Solutions (which call for the elimination or exclusion of the “other”) Narcissistic Behavior (acting superior and not caring about anyone else) Negative Advocates (constantly recruiting others to join in this hostility) We are well-acquainted with this pattern in high-conflict divorces, and it’s not good. This behavior is called “high-conflict” because it increases the conflict, rather than reducing or resolving it. Worst of all, it’s contagious – it spreads when people are exposed to it, like a virus. This behavior results in a state of mind called “splitting” – the psychological term for truly believing that certain people are absolutely all-bad and others are absolutely all-good, with no gray areas in between (Millon, 1996). This might not seem like a serious problem, except for the fact that the spread of splitting leads people to stop speaking to each other, to hate each other and, sometimes, to be violent with each other. It also distracts us from solving real problems. We are now concerned that this behavior is spreading into politics at all levels. Today’s Leaders Recently, political leaders in both parties appear to be adopting and escalating high-conflict behavior, and perhaps, even leading it. Millionaires and billionaires are funding expensive ads as key elements in high-conflict election campaigns. And, the news promotes high-conflict behavior in every broadcast – to children as well as to adults – by relentlessly showing, and thereby teaching, the most dramatic bad behavior of the day. We believe that the politicians, donors to Super PACs and the news media don’t seem to realize how destructive and self-destructive this escalation of high-conflict behavior can be. We would like to warn them and the rest of the nation about the dead-end nature of this unrestrained behavior that knows no limits. We have seen splitting destroy too many families, and we don’t want to see it destroy the American family. We want to avoid a Democrat-Republican high-conflict divorce. In approaching these problems, it’s not about pointing fingers and deciding who is more at fault. It’s about everyone taking responsibility for his or her own behavior, and managing collaborative relationships, even when we disagree. Who Are We, and Why Did We Write This Book? We are a psychologist and a family law attorney, each who has worked with divorcing families for over 30 years. And, we both are family mediators – we meet with divorcing couples and help them calm down and work together for the sake of their children and their own futures. We are not politicians or political scientists, but we have learned ways of calming high-conflict families and helping them work together peacefully, for the sake of the children and their parents’ future lives. At a recent conference on high-conflict divorce, we discussed how much the dynamics of the current elections mirror high-conflict divorce. The closer we looked, the more similar these dynamics appeared. In fact, to both of us, the parallels are striking, and the solutions may be too. We thought it would be worth a try to analyze this and come up with some suggestions for how to change the destructive direction in which we seem to be headed. This book is our small effort to calm this conflict. How Similar Are High-Conflict Divorce and High-Conflict Politics? Reports from The Wall Street Journal (Thernstrom, 2003) and from family court judges (Brownstone, 2009) indicate that high-conflict divorce is on the rise. But, some of the most powerful reports come from children who grew up in high-conflict divorce situations and who are now adults. Constance Ahrons (2004) interviewed over one hundred children during the divorce, and 20 years later. The following are typical comments reported: Travis, fourteen and the middle child of three, lived with his mother weekdays and spent several weekends a month with his father. It’s the old thing – they were playing the kids against each other. You would hear a story from one and then get another story from the other, and you would never know for sure who is closer to the truth than the other. Now, as an adult I have learned to take everything with a grain of salt, and see where it is planted here and there. His younger sister also felt caught in the cross fire: It made me really mad. I would have to try to keep my mouth shut to not upset the other. I had to really watch what I said when I was with either one of them, because—for example, if I would mention my father while I was with my mother, that would really set her off. Unfortunately this resulted in her distancing herself from both parents. “I don’t remember ever having this feeling like, oh, I can’t wait to see my dad or mom now. I really miss them! Instead, it was always a relief to get away from the other (p. 80). Notice how the children were turned off to both parents, because of their high-conflict behavior. But of course, politicians wouldn’t act this way, would they? More recently it seems that they are acting in very similar ways. On the first floor of the Capitol, there is a private dining room for senators, the “inner sanctum,” where Republicans and Democrats used to have

Incivility in the Workplace: A Growing Problem

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© 2011 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.   Times have changed. Incivility is growing in the workplace, as well as in most areas of our society. How big of a problem is this? Why is this happening? And what can be done about it – as individuals and as organizations? The two main points of this article are to explain why the most effective civility training focuses on specific skills, rather than simply admonishing people to be civil or decent and to explain why such training is best when provided to a whole workgroup or organization at the same time.   A Growing Problem? In August 2011, a front-page newspaper article stated that incivility in the workplace is growing, as reported by the American Psychological Association. According to a poll by Civility in America, 43% of American workers have experienced incivility and 38% say there is increasing disrespect in the workplace. Another study showed 86% of workers saw incidents of incivility in several firms.[i] Effective January 2009, The Joint Commission, which sets the standards for hospitals nationwide, adopted new leadership standards for conflict management in hospitals, because of “intimidating and disruptive behaviors” by some healthcare professionals and employees that could affect patient care.[ii] In July 2009, a “Civility Toolbox” for California attorneys was implemented after being developed by a Civility Task Force because of the “perceived decline in civility in the practice of law.”[iii] In July 2011, a squabble between congressional members hit the national news for a week during the debt ceiling debate, when one member sent an email (copied to several others) telling another member “You are the most vile, unprofessional, and despicable member of the US House of Representatives…. You have proven repeatedly that you are not a Lady, therefore, shall not be afforded due respect from me!”[iv] These events indicate a growing problem with incivility throughout our society. However, not everyone acts this way. Now appears to be a good time to strongly address this problem before it grows out of control. First, we need to understand what may be driving this behavior, so we can effectively reduce it.   What Causes Incivility? There seem to be several causes feeding this problem. A culture of blame and disrespect We currently live in a Culture of Blame and Disrespect, so that television, movies, the internet and even newspapers emphasize the misbehavior of individuals more than issues of real substance: Who said what disrespectful statement to whom today? Who walked off a TV show or out of a political meeting? And what acts of the worst individual violence were done – and by whom? It’s as if to say: “Don’t you ever act this way – and we’ll show you again and again how to do it!” Brain researchers have recently discovered that we have “mirror neurons” in our brains, which cause us to imagine ourselves doing the exact same behaviors of the people we see around us and to feel what they are feeling – perhaps to prepare ourselves to do the same behaviors if necessary.[v] They report that our mirror neurons even imitate the behavior of people we see on a 2-dimensional screen (TV, computers, etc.), although the effect may be slightly less than it would be in person. Thus we may be absorbing the behaviors associated with violence, disrespect and the current cultural preoccupation with blaming others while avoiding responsibility. Whether we actually act on these behaviors may depend on our closest colleagues. Incivility is an angry act. Brain research informs us that watching other people’s facial expressions of anger or fear can hook the amygdala in our brains with lightning speed. The amygdala grabs our attention, shuts down our higher thinking, and prepares us for “fight or flight.”[vi] In many cases, incivility may be part of this protective/defensive response, such as the congressman suggests above. He justifies his statement by saying it was simply a response to the congresswoman’s attack on him. Such negative behavior is clearly inappropriate in modern situations and often backfires. Yet we are repeatedly exposed to examples of incivility, presented as newsworthy behavior from the highest levels of government, business and entertainment. While such statements are criticized by some, they are defended and applauded by others. This behavior – and the lack of agreement about it – makes us more anxious as a society, and research shows that we are more likely to absorb the emotions of those around us if we are anxious.[vii] With this knowledge, it’s not surprising that incivility is growing in our culture. Rather than emphasizing the positive behaviors necessary for the success of a culture, we are preoccupied with entertainment and news images that emphasize the negative – because it’s what grabs our attention and that’s what sells. Unfortunately, this is also what we learn to mirror. High-conflict individuals Recent research indicates that “high conflict” personalities are increasing in our society. People with these personalities tend to have a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors, a preoccupation with blaming others and a lack of self-restraint.[viii] [ix] Making rude and uncivil comments may be part of their personalities so that it feels totally appropriate to them and they are not even apologetic or embarrassed by this behavior. On the other hand, some people may not have “high conflict” personalities, but they may believe that rude comments and behavior are an appropriate response to someone else’s uncivil behavior. For example, is the congressman above a high conflict person? Or is he simply responding to a high-conflict person with appropriate comments? He justifies his behavior because of his perception that her behavior was unjustified. (He said she had spoken about his position on the issues after he had left a public meeting so that he had no chance to respond.) Many people take this justification approach these days. Some are high-conflict people themselves, with a long-standing pattern of blaming others and a lack of self-awareness of their own negative behavior. Others are generally reasonable people